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Posts Tagged ‘participatory’

A couple of weeks ago, DIE ZEIT published an article on democracy in art museums.

The article accepts that a museum is ‘a political space’ [1] and that there is validity in arguments calling for greater democracy and diversity therein [2]. However, the article asserts, these developments ‘almost inevitably endanger the freedom of art’ [3] since museums no longer ‘[defend] the freedom of art against all protests’ [4]. This defense, the article concludes, should be based on aesthetic value.

 

Much of what goes on in the article is illustrative of the wider museum-related discourse in Germany, so I feel like making a few observations.

 

  1. The language of war

I find it truly revealing that the language used is that of war. Democracy (and participation) in museums ‘endangers’ the ‘freedom’ of art, which museums must ‘defend’. In other words, this is a scenario of museums vs. the rest of the world; museums ‘defending’ a higher good. It is this kind of attitude that shores up resistance to democratisation processes within museums.

 

  1. Aesthetics as Power

The article places aesthetic values above ethical values such as, for example, animal rights (see below). Ethics, of course, is something that concerns all of us in our daily lives. It is the basis of human societies through laws and religion, it deals with how we want to be treated and how we treat others. In one way or another, we each of us have knowledge, or at least an informed opinion about ethical values which we can voice and argue. Aesthetic value, however, is something quite different. An evaluation of aesthetic value requires knowledge of art history and artistic techniques in order to be more than a simple, and thus easily dismissed statement of personal taste. By placing aesthetic over ethical value we are therefore back to an authorizing, that is, power-giving discourse that asserts that only experts (i.e. museums) can understand and thus determine the value of art. The public’s values, which in this case are ethical values, are being dismissed as less important.

 

  1. Museums in a bubble

To assert that ethical value matters nothing in the evaluation of art and that, in essence, only the expert’s (i.e. the museum’s) aesthetic evaluation should count, is to say that both art and the museums that show it are entirely separate from society and context (see point 1 above). Accordingly, the values, even the laws of society are not to be brought into the bubble. This is why the article can decry the ‘ready’ removal by the Guggenheim Museum in New York of ‘Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other’ by Penk Yu and Sun Yuan after 830.000 people petitioned for it because, alas, animal rights matter nothing when it comes to art. Art and museums are thus a law upon themselves, a separate universe: one which must be defended.

 

  1. Expert cowardice

Ludicrous as I personally find the dismissal of ethical values when it comes to art, I actually have no objection to museums ‘defending’ art on aesthetic grounds. What I do find objectionable, however, is that most museums aren’t actually ‘defending’ their opinions at all – they are simply not putting them up for debate. They use their control of the museum space to present only their own view. So while many, like this article’s author, bemoan the supposedly negative impacts of democracy on museums, in reality most museums are still not engaging in true democracy at all.

 

  1. Political correctness

In my experience of museum discourse in Germany, there are many who, like this article, will readily grant that there must be more participation in museums, more diversity, more inclusion – you name it. I pose that this is said not out of conviction, but out of  political correctness. For when it comes to let action follow words, which can only mean to allow greater debate within museums, to share power, and to make visible other views, these same people argue that for reasons of expertise, science and knowledge more participation/diversity/inclusion isn’t possible. The spectre of lessened quality and false information is raised to scare everyone back into accepting what is really little more but those in power doing everything they can to hold on to it.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘ein politischer Ort’, my translation.

[2] ‘[Museums] have understood that [official art history]…has mostly been told from a Eurocentric, white, male perspective’ (‘Sie [Museen] haben begriffen, dass die klassische Fortschrittsgeschichte der Kunst, die in der Avantgarde ihren Höhepunkt fand, viele bline Flecken aufweist, weil sie meist aus einer eurozentrischen, mnnlichen, weißen Perspektive erzählt wurde.’) My translation.

[3] ‘Allerdings gerät damit die Freiheit der Kunst…fast unweigerlich in Gefahr.’ My translation.

[4] ‘Sie [Museen] hätten die Freiheit der Kunst gegen alle Proteste verteidigt.’ My translation.

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I have just recently submitted an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project primarily (but not exclusively) aimed at young people at my current site.  Last week, HLF asked me to clarify how creating a young people’s area in our historic park was intended to help young people to understand the heritage of the park, and support the wider project aims [1].  As I wrote my response, it struck me that while the connection was obvious in my mind, it is not what we usually think of when we say ‘interpretation’ (and this is effectively what HLF were asking me about).

For me, this project is a perfect example of interpretation as a facilitated process.  The project has several stages with associated activities, which my team and I will facilitate [2].  This isn’t a one-way street where we impart knowledge about the site to the young people.  Rather, we set the parameters of the activities, and within these, the young people are very much in control. [3]

Creating the young people’s area at the end of the project is actually the ultimate expression of and participation in the heritage of the site.  The reason is this: my site is all about social empowerment and making your mark on the world around you.  It is evident in many structures that are in the historic park, and by adding their own structure, young people will visibly stake their claim to this heritage, add to it, and hopefully carry it into the future.

In other words, through this project young people won’t just learn about the heritage values of the site: they will actively perform them. [4]

I’m hugely excited about this, and I hope HLF will fund the project.  I always try to ensure the interpretation I offer is facilitation, but this is not always possible to the extent that it is with this project.  It will be very interesting to see whether young people truly connect to the heritage of the site, and see it as their own, as a result of this project.

A project like this is of course not feasible for a visitor who can only spend a limited time on site.  However, I think even these visitors will benefit from the project.  In interpretation, we often talk about ‘a sense of place’, and I think the best sense of place I can give other visitors is by facilitating the (heritage) community telling their story to these visitors directly.  That’s one activity in this project (the young people will produce a ‘traditional’ piece of interpretation), and the young people’s area will be another aspect in this.  I believe that although these visitors will not have participated in the interpretive process, the outcomes of this process, such as the young people’s area, will tell a story in themselves.  I think that a word or two about the project (e.g. “In 2012 the young people of the community created this area as their contribution to the community’s heritage of social empowerment.”) will give visitors a stronger sense of place than many other interpretive interventions could do.

 

Notes

[1] In summary, the project aims are about helping younger people understand the heritage values of the park, and what their place is within that heritage.  The project also aims at empowering young people to share that heritage with others.  And there are several project activities aimed at increasing exchange and collaboration between young people and older members of the community.

[2] In summary, the activities are 1) researching the history of the site in collaboration with existing community groups; 2) making a creative response to what they’ve found in the research, and organising an exhibition of this work; 3) speaking to former mayors of the town about what it meant to them to serve the community in the tradition of the many Labour politicians that started their career here; 4) working on a traditional piece of interpretation of their choice for the benefit of other visitors, and 5) creating the young people’s area.  It is envisaged that participants can leave/join the project at every new activity/stage.

[3] This ‘self-guided’ and explorative learning is at the core of not only the new Welsh curriculum, but also the Scottish one – and I daresay every curriculum in the UK and probably even elsewhere.  And it is an important aspect of the HLF funding programme.

[4] That’s my hope, anyway.  Of course, it all depends on whether we get the funding, but if we do, we’ll also do a baseline survey and evaluation throughout to measure the ‘impact’ of the project as much as we can.

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